The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity
01: Early Pagan Religion in Mesopotamia
Explore the ways in which the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia tried to understand, worship, and cultivate supernatural forces in the world around them. Learn how the Enuma Elish, the great Mesopotamian creation myth, mirrors human concerns we still address today—power struggles, gender issues, family discord—as it explains the origin of the world, its organization, and humanity’s place in it.
02: The Rigveda and the Gods of Ancient India
While most of the early religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome have been supplanted over time, the early religions of India are still thriving today. Explore the ancient Rigveda, one of the four sacred texts of modern Hinduism. An ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns, it is alive with riddles, paradoxes, and as-yet-unsettled doctrines that leave plenty of room for stimulating speculation.
03: State Religion in Ancient Egypt
Explore how the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a pyramid inscription reveal the existence of Atum, the creator god who rose from primordial chaos to create himself and nine additional gods. But what happens to Atum when the cities of Memphis and then Karnak rise to power? Learn how political power and religion were interwoven in ancient Egypt.
04: From Myth to Religion: The Olympian Deities
While the modern world often thinks of the Greek gods and goddesses as myth, they formed the basis of religion in ancient Greece. Learn about this relationship between myth and religion and explore the fascinating puzzle of Zeus. Could Zeus have been a single god with many “persons,” perhaps somewhat similar to the single god of Christianity which exists in three persons? Or were there many different gods, each known as Zeus?
05: Household and Local Gods in Ancient Greece
The daily life of the average ancient Athenian family wasn’t dominated by the gods who lived on Mt. Olympus, but by the gods who protected their front door and hearth and blessed the marriage bed. Discover the many ways in which these household gods were woven into the fabric of daily life and who was responsible for the household religious activities.
06: Feeding the Gods: Sacrificial Religion
From the Mediterranean regions to ancient India, animal sacrifice played a central role in the relationship between people and their gods. Learn about the required elements for a proper honorific, atoning, or sacramental animal sacrifice. Discover the many ways in which the sacrifice benefitted the peoples involved—and what the gods required of the animal.
07: Prayers, Vows, Divination, and Omens
For these ancient peoples, signs from the gods existed everywhere—from the shape of sacrificial animal organs and the properties of smoke when they were burned, to the sudden appearance of birds in the sky, dreams, and more. Explore the many ways in which the people and their gods communicated with each other, and why no army would move forward to the battlefield without their soothsayers and priests.
08: Delphi and Other Greek Sanctuaries
Major sanctuaries attracted people from all cities and states and served to unite the Greek world. Explore the fascinating Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus. In addition to the expected altars, you might be surprised to learn about the sporting events, libraries, hospitals, and even racetracks at these significant shrines.
09: Cults and Mystery Religions
Public worship celebrations—such as the annual Panathenaic festival honoring the goddess Athena—provided a political benefit in unifying citizenry. But in addition, some gods were worshipped in private cults requiring membership and initiation rites. Learn about the benefits of such membership, both in this world and the next, particularly for women.
10: Philosophical Critiques of Paganism
While most ancient Greeks worshipped, sacrificed, and celebrated as the state preferred, others had their own ideas. Explore the fascinating outlier philosophies of the Pythagoreans, Orphics, Stoics, Epicureans, and more. Most of these small, isolated groups were not a threat to the state’s status quo. But if the state felt threatened, it reacted forcefully, as in the execution of Socrates.
11: Greek Funerary Practices and the Afterlife
The ancient Greeks considered it a solemn religious duty to prepare the bodies of their dead, burn the bodies, and then bury them with a variety of household or military objects. Even long after burial, people continued to bring offerings to the dead, including food and drink. Explore why these rituals were significant to the state and became a powerful force for conservative values opposed to innovation.
12: Egyptian Influences on Ancient Religion
Egyptian religion had a significant impact on the religions of the Mediterranean world, particularly Greek and Roman. Based on pyramid texts, coffin texts, and spells written on papyri, learn what these ancient peoples believed about the potential for a soul to become immortal, the location of the afterlife in the West, and why the dead needed nourishment from the living.
13: Ancient Roman Ancestor Worship
How did the descendants of the shepherds and criminal outcasts who founded Rome on the hills above malaria-infested swampland conquer the entire Mediterranean? According to the Romans themselves, their single greatest strength was their religion. Learn about the cultus deorum and how precise relationships with dead ancestors, as well as the gods, allowed the conservative Roman culture to flourish.
14: Gods of the Roman Household
Roman gods were involved with every aspect of daily life. Explore the great pantheon of gods that influenced everything from doors hinges to meals to sex. Learn how women’s religious activities reflected their societal roles in that patriarchal culture—from the involvement of four goddesses and two gods to oversee the consummation of marriage, to the use of terra-cotta uteruses as votive offerings.
15: Gods of the Roman State
Rome was remarkable in antiquity in that this sexist, classist, and slave-owning culture incorporated conquered peoples into the Roman body of citizens. Discover how they also incorporated the gods of the conquered in a practice known as interpretatio Romana. Of course, summoning a deity from an enemy city was a formal process, as you’ll see through the fascinating stories of Juno and others.
16: Priests and Ceremonies in the Roman Republic
Whose responsibility was it to care for the plethora of Roman gods and goddesses, maintaining appropriate worship and relationships? Learn what roles the four collegia of priests, the pontiffs, and the Vestal Virgins played in Roman religion. They played a crucial role in maintaining stability by calming the deities and keeping them on the side of Rome. In fact, the state’s survival depended on them.
17: Religion, Politics, and War in Rome
Is it possible that one of the world’s greatest empires was based in great part on the art and science of birdwatching? Absolutely. The calls of the raven and owl, flight patterns of eagles and vultures, the eating styles of chickens—all were signs from the gods. Explore the college of priests, the Sybilline Oracles, and the detailed rituals of divination required before state officials could take any decisive action.
18: Rome’s Reactions to Foreign Religions
Rome incorporated many of the gods of its conquered peoples. But it could not tolerate people assembling on their own to worship without state supervision, or sexual activity that could undermine property rights. Examine the Bacchanalia, and see why Rome considered worshippers of Bacchus an existential threat to the state, and why the practice was violently suppressed.
19: The Roman Calendar and Sacred Days
The college of pontiffs was responsible for keeping track of all the gods and their holidays; the necessary public festivals and the seasons; as well as the days, weeks, months, and cycles of the Moon. But by historical times, the calendar was completely out of sync. Learn how and why Julius Caesar reorganized the calendar into a version very close to what we use today.
20: Julius Caesar: A Turning Point in Roman Religion
Julius Caesar began his public religious career as a teenager, and early in his political career announced that he was descended not only from kings, but from the gods Venus and Mars. Learn how he used his priesthood and political success (based in part on disregard for constitutional conventions) as well as military and financial success (primarily drawn from plunder and the slave trade) to become a dictator and have the Senate declare him a god after his death.
21: Emperor Worship in Rome
The deification of Julius Caesar represented a turning point in Rome’s religion. The polytheistic, state-sanctioned pantheon made room for new gods: the Caesars. Learn how and why Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son, instituted a monarchy that appeared to be a republic, and how the worship of his family and his personal authority transformed traditional religion.
22: Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians
Before Christianity, two major monotheistic religions existed in the ancient Mediterranean area. Explore the similarities and differences between Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and emerging Christianity, and how the empire initially accommodated their teachings and actions. You’ll also learn about the grievances on all sides.
23: Popular Religions of Late Antiquity
In late antiquity, even after the initial emergence of Christianity, the majority in Rome and Italy held to the traditional religion and ancient gods. Explore the relationships between paganism, Manichaeism, and Isis worship at the time of the rise of Christianity and learn why Rome’s rulers could not accept or tolerate Christianity.
24: The End of Paganism in the Roman Empire
Individually, it was relatively easy for people to convert to Christianity because it offered many familiar aspects of traditional religion—life after death, community gatherings, a sacred meal, etc. But at the state level? Explore the many fascinating reasons why, after so many centuries of success with its own state-sponsored religion, the Roman Empire finally adopted Christianity as its official faith.